SAO PAULO, Brazil - Brazilians are no strangers to economic inequality.
The poorest 40 percent of Brazilians receives 10 percent of the annual national revenue, and the richest 10 percent receives 40 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Applied Economic Research.
There are many proposed solutions to the extreme inequality existent in Brazil, but perhaps one of the most well known and controversial is land reform.
According to an article published in the Brazilian Revista Economica do Nordeste, or Northeast Economic Review, in the observation period of 1995 to 1996, the smallest 50 percent of Brazilian farms, in terms of physical size, had about 2 percent of Brazilian farmland. The largest 5 percent had about 68 percent.
Thus, the inequality of land distribution is even higher than that of revenue distribution in Brazil and signals a potential area in which efforts can be made to eliminate the latter.
Indeed, the unequal distribution of land has been an issue throughout Brazil’s history, one that the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 sought to eliminate through various measures, such as giving the government the right to take over unproductive lands on large farms and granting landless individuals ownership of land tracts of less than 50 hectares under certain conditions.
Even before the Brazilian Constitution dealt with the matter, in 1984 the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento Sem Terra) formed with the goal of speeding agrarian reform.
From shortly after its formation in the 1980s until today, the most publicly visible aspect of the Landless Workers’ Movement has been its many occupations of particular pieces of unproductive land to try to receive ownership rights to that land.
Right outside of the city of Sao Paulo, for example, in 2002, about 450 landless workers commenced an occupation of a state-owned piece of land that was soon to become a landfill in order to gain rights to the land.
That parcel of land, now known as Irma Alberta (Sister Alberta) by supporters of the Movement, has come to be classified as an established “settlement” as opposed to a less-developed “encampment;” that is, Irma Alberta, which now boasts several houses, a school and plots of plants such as manioc, corn and coffee, has become the permanent (or so they hope) home of 118 members of the Landless Workers’ Movement.
The movement sponsors many social programs and organizations and emphasizes the importance of empowering and valuing its members as well as taking care of the environment and producing quality organic food. Each Landless Workers’ settlement functions as an intentional community, with necessary tasks divided up among members.
However, although the movement presents positive opportunities for many landless, unemployed and homeless workers, it continues to be heavily criticized among Brazilians because of its invasion of private lands and the occasional escalation of conflicts to violence (often between movement members and property owners or movement members and the police).
Regardless of the many possible criticisms of the occupations, the accomplishments of settlements such as Sister Alberta are perhaps a real-life example of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s findings.
Perhaps they are an example of a way that social solidarity and shared interests can allow people to make a collective effort at the local level to eliminate poverty and, on a larger scale, to eliminate inequality.